What’s New in ‘What’s New’?

I think it’s time we came to grips with the fact our customers don’t really care about our Web sites.

OK, OK. Maybe that’s being a little too harsh. Really it’s just that they don’t care about our Web sites as much as we care about our sites. And that difference can really affect how we use our sites to communicate with our customers.

Look at it this way: Say you’re the ever-suffering VP of marketing. As you’d expect, the corporate Web site is your responsibility. Being a good, conscientious employee, you dutifully check the site every day to make sure it’s being updated and maintained the way it’s supposed to be. That’s your job.

Of course, being the stickler you are, you are always the first to notice changes, the first to notice when something’s wrong, and the first to do something about it. It’s your job. That’s what you do.

On the other hand, unless your customers are also large shareholders or you’re their sole supplier of a business-critical component, they probably don’t look at your site very much. Sure, they might be driven back from time to time because of your highly effective email campaigns (you’re a good VP of marketing), but generally they only visit from time to time to see what’s new.

The problem is they probably have no idea what’s new. Unless they’re looking really closely and really, really, really know your site well (which they probably don’t), they’re going to miss all that finely crafted new content you lovingly had posted on the Web. They’re going to miss the product announcements, they’re going to miss the new press releases, and they’re probably going to miss other important info. Why? Not because they’re stupid, far from it. Nope, they’re going to miss it because they’re human beings with lives outside of their relationship to your company. They just don’t care enough to notice when things change unless you’ve made it really, really obvious.

Yes, I know this seemingly falls under the “duh!” category for obviousness, but, truly, most sites do a terrible job of clearly labeling new content and an even worse job of notifying individual visitors when content’s changed since their last visit.

Don’t believe me? Informally survey some of your favorite corporate sites or the sites of companies you buy from. Sure, many of them have a “what’s new” section on the home page, but unless you really know when that content was changed, you’d probably have to ask, “How new?” And unless you, dear customer, have been keeping regular tabs on the site, you probably aren’t going to remember what you read the last time. It’s just human nature.

Why is this a problem? Because for many of us the Web has become our primary means of communicating with our customers. We rely on it to push our products, new services, and important product information. Unfortunately, since many of us reading this have the company Web site listed as one of our primary job responsibilities, we have a hard time remembering we’re probably the only person in the world who actually reads the thing every day. We notice the changes, but most of our customers probably don’t.

This situation also exists on intranets and other portals. When confronted with a long list of links indicating “new” content, there’s no way of knowing what you should bother looking at — unless some additional indicator places the link into a time context. People have less and less time and only scan (rather than read) most sites they visit, so even dedicated employees may miss vital new info unless they’re hit over the head with it.

Usability guru Jared Spool is often quoted for his theory of how people use “scent” on a site to know if they’re moving toward information appropriate to them. It’s a good metaphor and if I could riff off it a little, I’d have to say the most important thing you can do for new info on your site is make sure it absolutely reeks of newness.

How? A few guidelines:

  • Date frequently changed content.

  • Indicate new content with an icon or other graphical element.
  • Use cookies to determine what’s truly new to your users, then communicate that newness via one of the above methods.
  • “Promote” new content from deep inside the site to the home page (at least temporarily) so infrequent visitors know some important data inside the site has changed.
  • Push new content via email for opt-in visitors who want to be kept informed of developments at your company.

Now I realize none of this is exactly earth shattering, but most corporate sites do a terrible job of this one little detail. Just remember: Nobody cares about your site like you do.

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